Marika Hackman on anxiety, lockdown, and her reflective new album 'Big Sigh'

Interview Marika Hackman: “That’s so much of what I explore - the stuff that unites us, even in its ugliness”

It’s been five years and one pandemic since her last studio album, and Marika Hackman has had a lot on her mind. Reflective, immersive, and - as ever - deeply personal, ‘Big Sigh’ is the sound of an artist getting it all off her chest.

Nobody could accuse Marika Hackman of doing the same thing twice. From the eerie atmospherics of her 2015 debut LP ‘We Slept At Last’ to the raunchy lust of 2019’s ‘Any Human Friend’, she - more than most - has consistently offered up something new. It’s an evolution that speaks to a particular Taylor Swift-ified notion of artistic ‘eras’ - a move that, Marika tells DIY over lunch, was entirely deliberate. “I think I was very much dodging being put in a box,” she says of her initial resistance to the lazy ‘female singer-songwriter’ tag. “But I think now I’m not really dodging anything anymore; I’m over that. Anyone can call me whatever the fuck they want to call me - I’m just really going to focus on songwriting.”

It’s an approach that’s both evident on, and perhaps partially prompted by, her newborn latest ‘Big Sigh’. A collection of ten intricately crafted explorations of the human psyche, the album deals in such existential ideas as the passage of time, loss of innocence, and mental turmoil; in essence, Marika’s got bigger fish to fry than what the press are calling her. “We’re all trying to work out who we are, where we fit - these are the kinds of questions that everyone’s subconsciously, constantly asking themselves," she muses. “I think when you’re a writer or an artist in any way, you’re just putting [those questions] out there for the world to see, which means you have to reflect a lot.”

And if there’s one thing to have happened in recent memory which made reflection essentially unavoidable, it was the near-complete shutdown of the world as we knew it. Marika spent lockdown with her partner Polly (aka electro-pop purveyor Art School Girlfriend), having been dating for only two months prior. On a personal level, the period proved to be happily fruitful - “we were stuck together for ten weeks; I was so glad she was there” - but professionally, the creative well ran dry. “I was very much in a cycle for 10 or 11 years - that hamster wheel of write; record; release; tour," she explains. “So when that came grinding to a halt, I felt the pressure to almost come out of the pandemic with a whole record written.”

Contrary to the popular perception that Covid gave artists the temporal freedom to flourish, Marika instead asserts that “90% of the people I’ve spoken to have said that they completely ground to a halt creatively, because there was no inspiration. There was just a constant hum of stress, which really negates being creative.” With the absence of any new mental stimulation - and a mounting feeling of panic that she had, perhaps, lost her songwriting knack - Marika sought comfort in familiar territory. She describes her ‘Covers’ album, which came out in 2020, as a project which “kept me focused and creative, but without any pressure to form something from nothing. That’s ultimately the hardest part of this job; if you don’t have to write the song, it’s just a jigsaw puzzle, and I love puzzles.”

Marika Hackman on anxiety, lockdown, and her reflective new album 'Big Sigh' Marika Hackman on anxiety, lockdown, and her reflective new album 'Big Sigh' Marika Hackman on anxiety, lockdown, and her reflective new album 'Big Sigh'

“Anyone can call me whatever the fuck they want to call me - I’m just really going to focus on songwriting.”

As puzzles go, ‘Big Sigh’ is something of a Rubik's Cube: multifaceted but interlinked, understated but deceivingly complex. There’s the swelling strings of ‘The Ground’, or the layered ebb and flow of ‘No Caffeine’. It dances between organic, acoustic instrumentation and distorted electronic effects; it revels in a distinct corporeality that’s become something of her signature (“Mum says I’m a waste of skin / a sack of shit and oxygen,” she intones over the swirling synths of ‘Vitamins’), but is simultaneously preoccupied with more interior, intangible matters. At the root of this central duality, Marika explains, is the moment her appendix burst aged 17 - a markedly physical sliding-doors moment which went on to have significant mental repercussions on the adult she grew into.

“After that, I had my first ever panic attack and I thought I was dying again, because all your senses shut down and you feel so isolated in that moment. Chronic anxiety is now half my life, basically, and I think when you’ve experienced such a palpable shift from one point to another, there very much is a before and after. It’s something that I really struggle with and that I find deeply sad: what if I’d never had that panic attack? What if my appendix hadn’t burst? Would I even have anxiety?”

As a condition, anxiety is one which is desperately prevalent - even more so post-pandemic - yet relatively absent from depictions of mental ill-health in popular culture. “I do think that being depressed has been ever so slightly glamorised by the art world for years”, says Marika. “There’s nothing glamorous about having a panic attack. At all. The viscerality of vomiting or having to go and lie down whilst you hyperventilate… it’s so debilitating, and there’s just nothing sexy about that.

“Someone could describe something like ‘he sat across the room with a haunted face / he had obviously seen sadness in his life’”, she continues, reciting theoretical lyrics. “But ‘he sat across the room bent double / trying not to shit himself / sweating and thinking he was going to throw up’... it’s not quite the same, is it?”, she laughs. “But [anxiety] is very important to talk about, because I think realising that other people have exactly the same thing just tempers it ever so slightly. That’s so much of what I explore - the stuff that unites us, even in its ugliness.”

“Anxiety is very important to talk about, because I think realising that other people have exactly the same thing just tempers it ever so slightly.”

Indeed, Marika’s never been one to shy away from discomfort, and her latest offering is no different. Take ‘Slime', the LP’s most overtly sexual track, which explores the charged emotions around her relationship’s inception. “There was a tricky situation where I had come out of a relationship and moved into a new one fairly quickly - that pissed off someone," she explains. “Falling in love is like a drug, and it was so much fun, but then at the same time it was very much [a process of] weathering a storm. Sex and love and violence; they’re two sides of the same coin - you’re always kind of on that cusp.”

This idea that lust and pain exist on the same emotional spectrum is one that’s carried over to ‘Slime’’s accompanying video, too; it sees Marika, decked out in chainmail, wrestle a similarly-clad woman in such a way that the question of whether they’re fighting or embracing is left deliberately ambiguous. It’s an astute observation of a fairly unconscious human behaviour, conveyed both visually and through decidedly physical lyrical imagery. (“Stranger, I want to rearrange you / Climb your spine and shake your mind / Slide back and feel your bones crack / So sublime, turn to slime”). “I [enjoy] picking a subject that’s ethereal and hard to catch, but using really direct language to bring it into the room," she smiles. “Or picking a really direct subject and using very image-laden, metaphorical language to explore pushing it to its furthest reach. I find it really interesting to pull opposites together; I think it really clarifies the sentiment of ideas.”

‘Big Sigh’, then, is as much about connection as it is contrast. It finds Marika older, wiser, and more settled - she and Polly have been together for four years and share “one and a half dogs” (one of them is shared with an ex). “That’s lesbians for you!” she laughs. In spite of the record’s sonic breadth and thematic abstractness, there’s a grounding throughline: having rediscovered her creative flair by reaching back into the past, Marika approaches ‘Big Sigh’’s knotty subjects not from the throes of emotional turmoil, but from a reflective perspective of personal stability.

“Albums are like time-stamps in themselves," she smiles. “It’s always great to know that when you’re feeling crap, you can look back and go ‘well, I felt like this before and I was fine again’. Or if you’re feeling good, you can think ‘wow - I’ve come so far’.”

‘Big Sigh’ is out now via Chrysalis Records.

Tags: Marika Hackman, Features, Interviews

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